Monday, 14 July 2014

The Perfect Day?

How do you know when it's the right time? Is there ever really a right time?  I guess if it ever was, it was now.
Deep breaths.  I try to pack some more chalk into the gouge in my fingertip, to hide it.  It's not there.  Helmet on. Eyes closed, I go through the sequence once more in my head.  When I open them I turn to take in the view, the deep green sea and the bay.  And then I feel it: rain. Surely not now.

Rewind a year and a half.  On a routine internet scouring session I stumbled across this photo on Neil Morrison's Flickr page:

The caption read: "a fine challenge for someone who likes blank slabs".  My ears pricked.

I emailed Neil to find out more and one rainy Friday a few weeks later I headed out to the beautiful coastal village of Diabaig nestling in it's sheltered bay, donned my boots and struck out.  Up on the hill above the peninsula's isthmus, beyond the honeypot Pillar and Main Wall, lie two amazingly contrasting and aptly named crags. Ugly Crag; steep, bulging, brutish.  Pretty Crag: slabby, smooth, short. Pretty Crag has a couple of VSs and an E1 on it, but an obvious gap in the middle where a hanging crack is guarded by a smooth wall of blank, pristine gneiss.
(Photo: Sarah Jones)
My love of slab climbing began with some of my first ever climbing experiences in the esoteric limestone quarries of Somerset.  Open, delicate movement, snaking the centre of gravity between minimal points of contact, and as a grade-chasing beginner I enjoyed the inverse relationship between protection and grade. I guess in the Peak District and elsewhere these kinds of short bold slabs are ten a penny, but up here in the Highlands, and more specifically the North West Highlands, they're few and far between.  Had I just struck upon the line I'd always dreamed of?

Initially I assumed it would be a top-rope rehearsal job, but then when I was there and looking at it I could see a thin crack that might muster a runner to protect the blank section before the safe top crack.  I changed my mind, and decided I should try to onsight it.  Time passed and 2013 came and went and the slab stayed in the back of my mind, but circumstances meant I never had a chance to return.  Finding a partner that would want to go out to this esoteric backwater was a bit of a struggle as there's not masses of other stuff that would keep them entertained.  Also, a selfish part of me didn't want to go there with someone who would clearly waltz up it after I failed, stealing 'my' route.  Childish, I know.  So, after weeks of favours, chores and bribery I managed to persuade my fiancĂ©e Sarah to come out and belay.

Now, Sarah has a complex relationship with climbing.  Actually, no, it's very simple.  She doesn't like it.  When we first started seeing each other, in the dark and distant past, she put on a good show of pretending that she did, and I dragged her up quite a few classic Scottish routes: Eagle Ridge, Agag's Groove, Ardverikie Wall, Cioch Nose and numerous horrid cold wintery things (which she enjoyed more than me).  But she doesn't need to pretend any more, she's got me. Hence having to resort to bribery and corruption to get a belay nowadays.
Psyched to be here!

Finally back at the crag at the end of May, it looked steeper and blanker than I remembered, but I'll just nip up the E1 to warm up then get down to business.  Or that's what I thought.  When I promptly fell off the top of the E1 I suddenly realised that I might be biting off more than I could chew. It would be easy if it was a couple of degrees more slabby, but it's actually too steep to just smear feet and rely on friction, it's proper face climbing.  So I realised three things: 1. I'm very bad at crack climbing, 2. the E1 is more like hard E2, but more importantly, 3. the potential new line would be significantly harder than anticipated.

An ethical dilemma arose: onsighting/groundup is good.  Top-roping is bad.  But then, as far as I was concerned, it would be a first ascent of a necky, tenuous route of the style and in the very place I really love. Regardless of how, doing it would be a special experience. Perhaps if it was elsewhere, where there are more and better climbers doing this sort of thing I would step aside and let someone else do it, but since it's in the remote North West that might mean it never actually gets done.  And perhaps if there was an obvious good gear placement round the crux I'd be happy to go for it and take the inevitable falls, but there's not and I think you'd be into ankle hurting territory. In the end I thought sod-it.  Headpoint project.  Wahoo!

That day I just abbed it as Sarah was getting bored, but I went back on my own with the shunt the next week and established just how thin the bottom 6 metres are.  The protection here is hard to see but OK: two No.3 Black Diamond Micro-Stoppers in a shallow crack, and although they've responded well to tugging from the ground I'm not sure if they'd take kindly to a fall from the last hard moves into the bottom of the hanging crack.

More time passed and I did some proper climbing: Neist, Elgol, Super Crag, Lochan Dubh, but the route still nagged away as an enticing challenge.  I had to get back.  But who with? Everyone was busy.  Sarah? That would take some serious bribery.  But then I remembered the lovely new restaurant Gille Brighde that's opened in Diabaig. Perhaps if I offered to pay for dinner she'd acquiesce to another belay?  Hooray! She agreed! Surely this would be the last possible time I'd get her out there, so this had to be it.
The top of Pretty Crag and the end of Ugly Crag in the shade.

On Friday I went back and played again on my own and was shocked by how hard it still felt.  But slowly I pieced it together, and although I didn't link it in one go I felt that I had the best sequence and knew the gear well enough.  Sunday had to be the day.

We huddle in the open as the rain shower passes over but there's blue sky beyond and a breeze and other than interrupting the bubble of self-belief I'm trying to inflate around myself, we're unscathed.
I'm nervous.  But excited and energised.  And nervous. On my first go I get off lightly, getting through most of the crux and getting the wire clipped in the bottom of the main crack before a foot scuffs and I'm off.  3 seconds earlier and it would have been very different. A silly mistake, all down to nerves.

Strip the gear and go again.  The first committing step through to the smear, the razor crimp, the four foot moves, the finger tip in the crack, the second razor crimp, fumble the wire, clip, balance, good finger-lock, smear, better finger-lock, wire, and then the glory of the crack and it's cams of joy and I'm on top.

And then, of course, it's over, and the impenetrable wall you've built and couldn't see past is gone.

On the walk back to the village and dinner we disturb an otter down by the shore, a compliment to the black-throated diver we watched in the loch on the drive down that morning.  Back at the car, I look back across the turquoise bay and see Pretty Crag glowing white in the evening sun.


Pretty Crag, Diabaig Peninsula
We, the Drowned 10m. E5 6b**  
Gaz Marshall, Sarah Jones. Headpointed 14th July 2014
The blank slab into the obvious central hanging crack.  Gain the port-hole feature and place small wires in the incipient thin crack just above, then step right and tiptoe upwards to reach the safety of the main crack.

Of course, the grade is a guess.  It felt technically harder than Firestone, but it's only 10m high and the top 3m are very safe and relatively much easier.  I think you could hurt yourself if you fluffed the last few hard moves and I think the style of climbing would make it a very hard onsight.  But I'd love to be proved wrong!

Oh, and the pretentious name is after the brilliant book by Carsten Jensen.